THE aid charity organisation, Oxfam, in its latest report, observed that inequality is now at crisis levels in Nigeria. Nigeria, it said, is the most unequal country in West Africa. According to it, inequality has reached crisis point in the West African region and governments in the region have ignored this issue. While the “wealthiest 1 per cent of West Africans own more than everyone else in the region combined, the collective wealth of Nigeria’s five richest men—$29.9bn (£24bn)—is more than the government’s budget in 2017. The richest man earns about 150,000 times more from his wealth than the poorest 10 per cent of Nigerians spend on average on their basic consumption in a year.”
As Oxfam noted, it would take 46 years for the richest Nigerian to spend all of his wealth, if he spends at a rate of $1 million per day. But Nigeria requires about $24 billion a year to lift all Nigerians above the extreme poverty line of $1.90. The Federal Government claims that it has spent about N300 billion on the National Social Investment Programmes in the last three years. But this is a far cry from what is required to address poverty effectively. Announcing this figure as an achievement in April, the Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on National Social Welfare Programme, Mrs Maryam Uwais, during a joint oversight visit by the Senate and House committees on Poverty Alleviation, also announced that over 11.5 million Nigerians had directly benefited from all social investment programmes, with about nine million indirect beneficiaries. The size of the population in extreme poverty that these programmes have reached leaves much to be desired, even if these claims were true.
Uwais also asserted that about 300,000 of the over 700,000 persons on the National Social Register were under the Conditional Cash Transfer Scheme, without explaining why 400,000 persons were yet to be reached. She further reported that over 9.5 million pupils were on the school feeding programme spread across 30 states. But in the same month, the Federal Ministry of Education indicated that it had conducted a National Personnel Audit of both public and private schools in the country, which showed that the country had 10,193,918 out-of-school children. So, how many of these out-of-school children have now been attracted to and sustained in school? These declarations have merely underscored the under-performance of the government in alleviating poverty.
The Oxfam report rightly identified Nigeria as one of the three countries least committed to reducing inequality. Instead of addressing poverty and inequality, it noted, “governments at both national and sub-national levels are worsening inequality by underfunding public services such as healthcare, education, water and sanitation and women’s empowerment.” Nigeria runs probably the most expensive government in the world, with a bloated public service characterised by advisers and aides whose salaries are often too high for a country in which the majority of the population live in abject poverty. This creates outrageously lopsided democratic and economic structures that favour and serve the interests of only a few. The scale of inequality in Nigeria is such that “while 75 per cent of registered businesses, including those run by the elite do not pay tax, the lower classes cannot escape arbitrary taxation, sometimes with blatant disregard for their human rights.” It is estimated that over 69 per cent of Nigerians are currently living below the poverty line.
In 2018, a report by the Brookings Institution declared that Nigeria had taken over as the country with the highest number of extremely poor people in the world. Until then, India held that position. With a population of 1.324 billion people,India has 73 million extremely poor people. Nigeria with a population of 200 million has about 87 million people in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty in Nigeria is growing by six people every minute, while poverty in India continues to fall. The 2019 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index indicated that “multi dimensionally poor” Nigerians increased from 86 million to 98 million between 2007 and 2017. We believe that the country is already in a poverty emergency. Unfortunately, the government has been insensitive, showing no sense of alarm.
The Oxfam report noted that extreme inequality hindered economic growth and stifled social mobility, while also fuelling crime and violent conflict. It is indeed difficult to fault the submission that inequality is a catalyst for social tensions within communities, with citizens’ frustrations manifesting via increase in crime rate and violence in various forms. Oxfam called on the government to urgently address the problems by promoting progressive taxation, boosting social spending, strengthening labour market protection, investing in agriculture and strengthening land rights for smallholder farmers. In addition, it called on the government to urgently change the culture of governance and break away with the policies and norms that sustain the concentration of wealth and income at the top, to forestall the self-perpetuating cycle of inequality that subjugates many and sustains poverty in Nigeria. We concur.